A Math Fairy Tale

Dr. Foss: What are you in for today?

Student: I have detention because I didn’t do my homework.

Dr. Foss: Why didn’t you do your homework?

Student: Because I didn’t understand it at school … how am I supposed to understand it at home by myself?

Dr. Foss: You pose an excellent question.

FYI: Fairy tales can be scary.

Don’t believe me? Check out the history behind Hansel and Gretel and try sleeping tonight. This one won’t be as bad.

A Math “Fairy Tale”

Once upon a time there was a school where students were punished for not understanding. Made to go without socialization, eat by themselves, face public shame and embarrassment, even wake up early and work on their days off! Wait a minute… I feel like I’ve heard this story before. You?

There is a common misconception that the teacher-student relationship is transactional. The teacher gives information and the student receives. If a student does not receive what the teacher has given, then it must be the fault of the student. And there WILL be consequences. 

Seems kinda ridiculous when you think about it right? Punishing students for not understanding what was taught? You have probably experienced this strange phenomenon without even realizing it. Did you ever have detention because you didn’t do your homework? Ever have to miss recess because you got caught cheating? Ever been kept from a field trip or other “fun” school event because of your grades? If not, chances are you know someone who has. 

Consider this:

Students have just taken a test on previously taught content.

Zach gets an “A” 

Slater gets an “F”

What assumptions did you just make about student Zach? Are they a “good” student? Supportive parents maybe? Motivated? Attentive? Hard working? 

What assumptions did you make about Slater? Are they a slacker? No support at home? Defiant? Lazy? 

Now consider this: 

Zach is an auditory learner, able to take in and process what the teacher says quickly. He is able to memorize material and regurgitate it with speed and accuracy. Zach is healthy, gets a good amount of sleep, and eats 3 square meals a day. Zach’s only responsibility when he gets home from school is to do his homework (if he didn’t already finish it in class).

Slater is a visual learner and gets lost easily during lecture based instruction. He has a difficult time memorizing information out of context and processes new information too slowly participate in class discussions. Zach suffers from undiagnosed depression and anxiety, dad is out of the picture and mom works nights. After school he is responsible for taking care of his much younger siblings.

Is Zach more capable than Slater? Maybe, but most likely not. 

Is Slater given the same opportunities to succeed in math as Zach? I would argue no.

So, why is it, that to be successful in mathematics you have to come with a certain set of privileges? Fair is not equal. Let me say it again. Fair is NOT equal. Giving ALL students what they need to succeed. That is equity.

For many students, this means the “traditional” math classroom will not work for them. I challenge you, as a parent, an educator, a member of society… before you decide that you are “good” or “bad” at math, consider the opportunities that you have been given to experience math in a way that makes sense to you. Then reconsider your mindset.

2 thoughts on “A Math Fairy Tale

  1. So true.
    The curriculum are designed for one type of intelligence
    Judge a fish by its ability to fly!!!!
    That says it all


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